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Cambodia: MTV no EXIT campaign indirectly supports abusive anti-trafficking law

2009, Cambodia – Cambodian sex work activists are outraged at the way MTV is advocating for fight against trafficking at the expense of safety and rights of local sex workers.

MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) is a project of the MTV Europe Foundation - a London-based registered charity - to raise awareness and increase prevention of human trafficking and exploitation. The Foundation's mission - Free Your Mind - is to utilize and maximize the power of MTV Europe's network and brand to inform European youth, and adults, on critical social issues. As the MTV Asia site explains, “MTVEXIT is about freedom of movement. We’re not trying to tell young people, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ The messages are ‘Go out and live your dreams, do travel, do have ambitions, do improve your lives.’ But make sure you do it with the right information. Our messages are about taking action to help put a stop to trafficking.”

The MTV EXIT Asian-Pacific campaign is part of a two-year project funded and produced in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), based on the same premise as the European version: exposing sex and labour trafficking, forced prostitution and forced domestic servitude in Asia and the Pacific and is comprised of two phases. The first phase was a 30-minute documentary, in which they interviewed trafficked women from Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. The second phase consists of a full blown concert series that kicked off in Cambodia in November 2008. EXIT’s campaign manager, Matt Love, explains that “we chose Cambodia as a testing ground [for the concert series] because our documentary was received really well here.”

In April 2008, the government of Cambodia passed an anti-trafficking bill which outlawed prostitution and classified all sex workers as a victim of trafficking. This bill was sponsored by USAID. The government’s motivation behind the bill was to avoid being considered a tier 3 trafficking country, which would bar it from receiving millions of dollars in financial aid from the US government. Women accused of being prostitutes are illegally detained and sent to ‘rehabilitation’ centres where gross human rights violations are heaped upon their unlawful detention such as: deprivation of medical care, rape, torture and starvation. Detainees of the rehabilitation centres are ‘taught’ to sew and become sweatshop/garment factory workers, where 72 hour work-weeks are the norm and salaries are equivalent to 36 USD a month.

Through its association with USAID, MTV EXIT has placed itself in the middle of a battle waged by sex workers and garment workers for the right to work and the right to fare wages. Unfortunately, MTV EXIT through its concerts presented a message that potentially made the situation worse for Cambodian sex workers. By conflating prostitution with trafficking, prostitution is reduced to sex slavery and is painted as a degrading and abusive profession. Within this pattern of thought, prostitutes are not considered women with agency who have freely chosen their profession, but instead are considered victims in need of ‘saving’. Critics have pointed out that the MTV EXIT campaign will be seen by audiences as reinforcing the Cambodian government’s anti-trafficking law and agenda. Audiences seeing the documentary will not realise that sex work is being conflated with trafficking, taking the focus away from people who are actually trafficked and from the human rights violations that Cambodian prostitutes are subjected to.

While trafficking is hardly a simple issue, it is far more complex in Cambodia given the unholy alliance between USAID and the Cambodian government. While USAID seems solely concerned with trafficking, it ignores that equating sex work with sex slavery within the Cambodian legislation has worsen the conditions of sex workers and garment workers in Cambodia. While the European version of the EXIT film focused on support and help for trafficked women, the campaign in Asia and the Pacific ignores the plight of garment and sex workers whose rights are abused and violated because of Cambodia’s absurd and counterproductive legislative initiatives of brothel raids, forced detention and totalitarian-style ‘rehabilitation’. These measures only push sex work further underground which exposes sex workers to more danger and makes STI prevention campaigns much more difficult to carry out. The MTV EXIT campaign only reinforces the government’s position within the public eye, adding to the marginalisation of sex workers.

Sex workers and garment workers actively campaigned against the MTV EXIT Asia-Pacific campaign, using No Exit as their slogan. In a meeting with MTV EXIT manager, WNU (Women’s Network for Unity ) and APNSW (Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers) explained their concerns and received the assurance that MTV EXIT would work with sex worker organisations in the future and that future broadcasts would not contain messages that could make the plight of sex workers worse.

Watch No EXIT video done by sex workers here.

For more info, check out MTV No Exit on Facebook here.

Source: DigiActive 
The Phnom Penh Post

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